Scott D. Pierce: Teen angst, martial arts, drama and comedy combine beautifully in ‘American Born Chinese’

Disney+ series about a teenager and the Monkey King’s son features two recent Oscar winners.

(Carlos Lopez-Calleja | Disney) Ben Wang and Jim Liu in "American Born Chinese."

The Disney+ series “American Born Chinese” is a rather astonishing mix of teen angst, martial arts action, mythology, family drama, comedy and pointed commentary about racism — made all the more amazing because all the pieces fit together so beautifully.

(All eight episodes start streaming on Wednesday.)

The cast features a pair of recent Oscar winners — Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” — as well as Daniel Wu, Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang and Stephanie Hsu. But it is the story of shy teenager Jin Wang (Ben Wang), who is trying to figure out who is he and how he can fit in. But, on top of that, his parents’ marriage is crumbling, the son of the Monkey King enlists him to help save the world, and he deals with subtle and not-so-subtle racism, what with being one of the few kids of Asian descent at his high school.

And “pretty close to 100%” of Jin’s everyday life felt real to Ben Wang — from the subtle digs and blatant slurs to the constant mispronunciation of his name. (Wang is pronounced “Wong.”)

The actor said that when he first read the “American Born Chinese” graphic novel, he thought, “‘How is that possible? Like, do you know me?’ Because, yeah, I grew up in Minnesota in a small town [and] a lot of it rang true for me.”

“I mean, at its core, ‘American Born Chinese’ is a story about an American adolescent experience,” Wang said, adding that it’s the story of “this one kid who happens to be Chinese and has that cultural background ... that he has to deal with all the time that feels like something extra.”

As the son of immigrants, Wang said, Jin deals with “this clashing of the culture of your family and the things that you want to be as an American teen. And I think that is so brilliantly tied to the metaphor of the gods and the mythological characters flying in and drop-kicking him and his friends and stuff.”

As “ABC” begins, Jin is forced to befriend the new kid at school, Wei-Chen (Jim Liu). Who, it turns out, is the son of the Monkey King (Daniel Wu). Wei-Chen has stolen his father’s magic staff and come to earth to battle the Bull Demon (Leonard Wu), who wants to overthrow the order in heaven and, in the process, destroy Earth.

As fanciful as that is, “ABC” is grounded in the reality of Jin’s family and his high school experiences.

(Carlos Lopez-Calleja | Disney) Yeo Yan Yan, Chin Han and Ben Wang in "American Born Chinese."

“This is an American story,” said Kelvin Yu, the series creator/executive producer/showrunner. “Like how ‘The Godfather’ is about an Italian family, but it’s also an American story. So this is a story about a kid, who happens to be of Chinese descent, and he’s ... trying to figure out who he is, which sucks for everybody. It doesn’t matter what race you are or where you grew up.”

Executive producer Gene Luen Yang, the author of the “American Born Chinese” graphic novel, said he’s been approached by people whose parents immigrated from many different countries — from Nigeria to Poland to the Philippines — who talk to him “about how the story spoke to them, even though the specifics are different, right? … So I’m hoping that that holds true for the show as well.”

Amazing journey

Yang said what has happened since his story came out as a “Xeroxed comic” in 2006 has been “absolutely mind-blowing.”

“I would finish a chapter,” he said. “I’d take it to my local Kinko’s. Remember Kinko’s? I would Xerox copies. I would staple it by hand. And I’d sell, like, 16 copies. ... Fifteen of my friends and my mom would buy it. So to go from there to here — it’s really crazy.”

The TV series is markedly different from the graphic novel, which sort of serves as a jumping-off point from the onscreen narrative. It has been updated for 2023, because the original story was written in 2005 and took place in the 1990s.

But the spirit of “American Born Chinese” is there, illustrating “this idea that being an Asian American is like being caught in between worlds,” Yang said.

(Carlos Lopez-Calleja | Disney) Ke Huy Quan in "American Born Chinese."

Oscar winner is playing with fire

Quan stars as Freddy Wong, an actor who played a popular character in a 1990s sitcom that has become popular again on a streaming service, despite the fact that Freddy’s character is a racist stereotype — which puzzles and plagues Jin.

“And for me to step into that character scared the heck out of me,” said Quan, who was “so reluctant to take on this role just because of what people would think about it.”

“We’re playing with fire a little bit,” Yu admitted.

But after meeting with the producers, Quan said he “realized that it was important to show the audience today what it was like to be an Asian actor back in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s. … Of course a lot has changed, but I want the audience to see it.”

Without giving anything away, there is, eventually, a payoff for the character. And for Quan.

“American Born Chinese” began filming a month before “Everything Everywhere” was released in 2022 — before Quan was showered with praise for his performance in that film. Before he charmed the world as he accepted his Oscar. (Yes, he is just as endearing in person.)

Quan said he made the show’s producers promise that “‘if, when this show comes out and people hate my character and nobody wants to hire me again, you have to promise to give me a job.’”

(Carlos Lopez-Calleja | Disney) Jim Liu and Michelle Yeoh in "American Born Chinese."

Portraying a goddess

The other Oscar winner in the cast, Yeoh, plays the Goddess of Mercy. And, make no mistake, the goddess is an icon in Asia. Yeoh said that “in the Chinese families, you have an altar, and you always have the Goddess of Mercy.” (She’s also known as the Goddess of Compassion.)

So finding the right actress to play her was a really big deal. “It’s sort of like casting the queen of England or the Great Gatsby or something,” Yu said. “And I don’t know that there’s anybody more than Michelle Yeoh who can enter a room and you’re, like, ‘Yeah, that’s a goddess.’”

(I’ve interviewed Yeoh on several occasions, and I’m completely on board with that statement.)

Yang said he and other producers “were tearing up” when Yeoh came on the soundstage in costume.

The same is true of the Monkey King, who is “a staple all over Asia,” Daniel Wu said. “It’s an iconic, legendary character.”

How iconic? “The Monkey King, if you don’t know,” Yu said, “is like … if Batman, Spiderman and Superman had a baby.”

(Carlos Lopez-Calleja | Disney) Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu in "American Born Chinese."

Representation and opportunity

Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia and rose to fame in Hong Kong, said it was her “ultimate dream” to come to Hollywood. But when she got to America, “It’s, like, ‘OK, I don’t see any more faces that look like me.’” And people “acted so surprised” when they learned she spoke English.

“I tell this horrible joke,” Yeoh said. “I said, ‘The flight coming here was, like, 13 hours. So I learned on the way.’”

Until recently, the few Hollywood roles for actors of Asian descent were stereotypes, often forcing actors to speak with pidgin accents.

Quan has told and retold his story — how, after starring in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Goonies” as a child, he left acting and worked behind the camera for decades.

“When I started out as a kid, it was very difficult to be an Asian actor at that time,” he said. “There were just not a lot of opportunities. Honestly, I’m very thankful, very grateful to what Hollywood has been doing for the last five years. ... The landscape has been changed. And here we are talking about “American Born Chinese.’”

Yeoh sounded hopeful. “I think we have broken that glass ceiling,” she said. “I hope [we] Ninja-kicked it to hell and it will never come back. … Give us equal opportunities to prove that we are capable of doing all of these things.”

And the young star of “American Born Chinese” said he’s grateful.

“I’m spoiled rotten,” Wang said. “I get to walk down the road that all of you guys have paved.”

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